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The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 26 Apr 2001
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This was the most popular novel of Radcliffe's time and Radcliffe's portrayal of her heroine's inner life raised the Gothic romance to a new level. The atmosphere of fear and the gripping plot continue to thrill today. This is the story of the orphaned Emily St Aubert who finds herself separated from the man she loves and confined within the Castle of Udolpho by her aunt's new husband, Montoni. Here she must cope with an unwanted suitor, Montoni's threats, and the wild imaginings and terrors which threaten to overwhelm her.
About the Author
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was the leading exponent of Gothic fiction. During her lifetime she published five novels including A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), as well as a collection of European travel writings. Her novels were immensely popular and much imitated.
Jacqueline Howard is Co-ordinator of English and Languages at St. Mary's College in Adelaide, South Australia, and author of 'Reading Gothic Fiction: A Bakhtinian Approach'.
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Thanks to Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey this particular book has become extremely well known, despite the fact that lots of people haven't read it. If this is your first time reading this then I should caution you, this is a loose baggy affair and in today's world this would probably be 'tightened' up, although in the case of this it would take something away from this, possibly some of the charm. Quite a few people do describe this as 200 pages of excitement, with 500 pages of boredom, and this does have a lot of descriptive writing, as well as poetry in it. This is a gothic romance, but it is also much more than that, it contains mystery and adventure, just for starters.
There are a lot of cliff hangers and 'hooks' here that will hopefully keep you interested and wanting to read more. Ann Radcliffe's husband was scared to read this alone, but I don't think that this would be the case these days as it is quite tame. If you are into or just getting into original gothic literature, then Radcliffe's novels are a must read.
The story itself is extremely complicated starting in Gascony, moving to Languedoc, then crossing the Alps from France to Italy to spend time in Venice. The Gothic horror part starts in the castle of Udolpho in the Apennines and continues at a chateau and convent in Languedoc. Be prepared for stories of mysterious deaths, ghostly music, phantom figures at midnight and the mystery behind the black veil! The explanations take place in France when the heroine and hero are reunited after a full Shakespearean quantity of misunderstandings. Unbelievable plot but exciting.
I particularly enjoyed the descriptive passages of the Pyrenees and Languedoc, an area I know quite well and which was recognisable from these passages written over two hundred years ago.
The opening of Terry Castle's incisive introduction to the work notes that, "Perhaps no work in the history of English fiction has been more often caricatured." It is supposed to be "the greatest (or at least the most famous) of gothic romances ... has an archetypal `gothic villain' ... is loaded with exotic scenery ... [and] its heroine, a victim of `sensibility', faints a lot." But whilst common opinion may see it as "a bit of a `silly' book too", the conscientious reader must actually "feel a twinge of bad faith"; Udolpho is actually "bigger, baggier and more uncanny than one thought it was." This is so true.
Whilst not denying a strong gothic element in the writing, the book is also a travelogue, a morality tale, a commentary on manners, and even a comedy of errors; just like Shakespeare, the servants provide a focus for humour, and Radcliffe is not even averse to parody herself as well as the tale she tells. Indeed, one can even view the novel as a typical Jane Austen romance - a woman, her marriage options, and the descent of landed property feature heavily in the plot - but this time set on the continent and in a gothic milieu; Jane Austen even drew on some of the scenes for her `Northanger Abbey' of 1818. But Terry Castle draws attention to the title of the novel, namely the `mysteries' of Udolpho. Thus one can add to the long list of genres set out above, even that of an Agatha Christie murder-mystery, a product of the new age of enlightenment when old-style superstitious mystery was replaced by its more reasoned newcomer, although "Radcliffe's supposedly `rational' explanations are at times almost more implausible than the supernatural explanations they are meant to displace."
Whilst the consensus about the book's merits might be overwhelmingly negative - "too long, feeble in characterisation ... lacking in moral or intellectual gravitas ... [and] full of absurdities" - a closer examination reveals "a meticulous stylist ... who can create moments of considerable drama". Indeed, the style of writing is worthy of remark. The book is full of long sentences, often beautifully constructed. The book must be read at a stately pace to accord with the natural breath of the author's rhythm. Did she speak in this way, or are the construction of sentences designed so as to be read aloud within family groups as they sat before the fire on cold, dark, late-eighteenth century evenings? This style can lead to artifice, and the excessive number of commas can be exasperating on occasions.
There are whole chapters of descriptive prose about the sublime effects of the natural landscape. These are of more value than mere curiosity; the author writes very well with a sharp eye for detail. Terry Castle sagely compares her prose in this regard to the landscapes paintings of Salvatore Rosa, Poussin and Claude Lorraine that Radcliffe admired. This is all the more amazing, as she never visited the places she describes in such detail, but sees them through the eyes of fancy. Actually, she saw them through the eyes of the likes of Tobias Smollett and Hester Thrale Piozzi whose travel books she greatly relied upon. Geographically, the novel forms an arc: volume one is set in Gascony and Languedoc; volume two in Venice and Udolpho; volume three in Udolpho and Tuscany; and volume four back in Gascony and Languedoc.
Ostensibly set in the year 1584, the book is imbued with the manners and sensibilities of genteel England of 1794. For this reason, I found it convenient to forego imagining a strict rendition of time and place. Whilst the number of precise factual anachronisms is small, they are nevertheless difficult to ignore; they include such items as coffee drinking, the names of English poets, the use of knives and forks, the wearing by ladies of certain hats, and the naming of rooms as `saloons'. Moreover, the description afforded to the city of Venice is more akin to the 1780s, or what Terry Castle in her introduction describes as "the elegant Venice of Canaletto and Goldoni", rather than that of the 1580s and the city of Tintoretto and Monteverdi.
There is very little character development. Indeed, there is very little character at all, since the novel revolves almost entirely around our heroine Emily. People come into her life and then leave only when they have some part to play in Emily's story. Even her dog, who appears to be her constant companion in all her travels, appears a mere two or three occasions in order to heighten tension or play a minor part in Emily's experiences: on his second appearance, as our heroine seeks to escape from the castle in which she is held, the dog's yapping threatens to disclose her position, but I had by then even forgotten the dog's very existence, so notably absent had his presence become.
So, what is this novel to be? A gothic romance? Travelogue? Morality tale? Commentary on manners or comedy of errors? Or enlightenment mystery? Why, all of the above, of course. But in a twist of blazing insight, perhaps Terry Castle is right to recommend this book for 21st century readers as a precursor of Freud's work on the unconscious, for "like a long and complex dream - the kind in which pleasure and apprehension are so closely intermingled as to become indistinguishable - the book repays imaginative introspection." When Radcliffe writes halfway through her novel that, the heroine "blamed herself for suffering her romantic imagination to carry her so far beyond the bounds of probability, and determined to endeavour to check its rapid flights, lest they should sometimes extend into madness", she is warning the incautious reader too.
The usual high standards of the Oxford University Press's World's Classics editions are upheld in this volume. Not only the introduction, but also the standard textual note, select bibliography, chronology and end-notes all appear to guide and enhance the experience. As with all reprints of classic works of literature, I recommend that the so-called introduction (which is really more of a commentary) is best read after the novel.
If you like your gothic novel full blooded and strong, you will love The Mysteries of Udolpho.
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